REAL HOT PROPERTY
The tritiated heavy water at the Brentwood site, however, was often just poured in holes dug at the site. It was also put in bags and barrels with other radioactive waste. These dangerous practices were forbidden eleven years after the dump had closed in 1968. In addition, liquid and solid waste were no longer allowed to be mixed together or simply tossed together with animal carcasses. “Do not mix radioisotopes of short and long half-lives, or gamma with beta emitters,” one West LA VA memo instructed November 26, 1979. New measures to strictly control and cease production of radioactive and chemical waste also took shape. Perhaps it was too little too late.
The existing VA records from 1960 to 1968 also show that the second most widespread waste at the Brentwood dump is carbon-14. “The reasons that C-14 cannot be stored until it decays to a safe level is that its half life, 5,730 years, is so long – who can wait even one half-life?” said Dr. James Warf in an e-mail. He is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at USC and was a group leader in the Manhattan Project. Warf’s 732-page “All Things Nuclear” is in its second edition as a university-level textbook. “Most carbon-14 used in research is in the form of biochemically-active forms, and therefore if ingested, could be dangerous.”
Toxic chemicals were also dumped during the sixteen years that the VA dump was active. In 1981, UCLA admitted that it had ditched known and unknown chemicals at the site in 4 to 8 foot deep holes. The chemicals included toluene and dioxane. Toluene is an organic liquid with a sweet, benzene-like odor. The most common chemical use for toluene is to make benzene and urethane. Short-term human exposure to toluene over its government-mandated “maximum contaminant level” of 1 part per million can cause minor nervous system disorders such as fatigue, nausea, weakness, and confusion. Long-term contact can lead to spasms, tremors, and impairment of speech, hearing, vision, memory, coordination, liver and kidney damage. According to the US-EPA, toluene’s “breakdown by soil microbes is slow,” lending itself to the possibility that it’s still a problem lying beneath the Brentwood dumping ground.
Another chemical buried in the site was dioxane, a known carcinogen. Though chemical records of the dump were usually destroyed after two years, UCLA divulged in 1981 that it had dumped chemicals at the VA dump. “If someone were to dig down in the old site they might find intact containers of toluene or dioxane,” wrote former UCLA director of Research and Occupational Safety, William E. Wegst. “I suppose one could imagine various hazardous scenarios developing as a result of someone digging many holes and retrieving many intact bottles of solvent.”
Record keeping at UCLA of its radioactive waste disposal from the late 1940s to the early 1970s seems nonexistent. “We have searched high and low and still haven’t found anything in our waste records back that far,” said Rick Greenwood, adjunct professor of epidemiology at the UCLA School of Public Health and director of the UCLA Office of Environment, Health and Safety at the time of our interview. Greenwood is now Assistant Chancellor of the university. “We have gone through our records and we really don’t have anything, not even a hint of a record in the time period we had discussed.”
But records do exist and show that UCLA did use the VA dump to dispose of tritium and radioactive animal carcasses. These records were gleaned from the Committee to Bridge the Gap, the VA, and UCLA. A comprehensive examination of thousands of pages of AEC-funded experiments at the university, from the radiation program’s inception in 1948 to the mid 1960s, shows the use of at least 37 different radionuclides with half-lives of mere minutes up to tens of thousands of years.